Bomb threat reveals flaws in USC’s emergency alert system

Crucial delays left some people on campus in the dark about the evacuation.

A screenshot of the text messages some students received. It's in two parts and explains that three buildings at USC were being evacuated due to a bomb threat, and a second one that they were safe.

Adjunct instructor Nick Morr was working on the fourth floor of Wallis Annenberg Hall Thursday afternoon when three police officers entered the room. After his offer to help was rebuffed, he asked if everything was alright but got no response. Morr said he then “started to assume the worst” and packed up to leave. Only when he was leaving did he receive a DPS notification alerting him to a bomb threat on campus.

“On my way out, I told a bunch of students who weren’t privy to the news that we needed to evacuate,” Morr said. “For some reason the police and security communicated nothing to us.”

After evacuations in three USC buildings, many students reported not having received an alert about the evacuation.

USC Department of Public Safety Communications Center received a call around 3:30 p.m. Thursday afternoon from an unidentified male reporting that he had placed bombs inside three buildings on the University Park Campus: Wallis Annenberg Hall (ANN), Steven and Kathryn Sample Hall and Grace Ford Salvatori Hall (GFS), DPS Assistant Chief David Carlisle said.

The DPS emergency alert system, TrojansAlert, sent out notifications via email and text message to inform students and faculty that there was an active evacuation order in the threatened buildings.

In conjunction with DPS, the Los Angeles Police Department conducted a search and told students to stay away from the area until a resolution notification was sent out.

However, many reported that they received the email and phone notifications at various times, while some only received one notification. A number of faculty and students did not receive any notifications.

Julio Marquez was working a shift as cashier in the Wallis Annenberg Hall Café during the bomb threat. Marquez and his co-workers were informed about the threat from their supervisor; none of the workers received notifications during or after the event from anyone but their boss.

“Everybody was very scared. [Julio’s supervisor] said to go home and don’t come back to the building,” Marguez said in an interview. “The university has our phone numbers and [other information], so it would be better if they text us.”

Michael Chow, a freshman majoring in communications, said that he never received one regarding the event itself and was only alerted of the resolution.

“I was coming out of comm class in ANN right as it happened and I saw the exodus [out] of AMC [Annenberg Media Center],” Chow said, adding, “I was very perplexed [by] what happened.”

According to the DPS website, students and faculty are automatically enrolled in the TrojansAlert system at the beginning of their first semester or upon hire.

Some students say they did not receive the notifications, despite not having chosen to opt-out of the automatic alert system. Others reported that the TrojansAlerts were sent to their personal emails instead of their USC emails.

“Our IT department worked all weekend trying to troubleshoot why some people may have not gotten the text alerts in an emergency situation,” Carlilse said. “In some cases, it is due to the person’s phone carrier, in other cases there might have been some technical glitches, but we are going to make sure that that is corrected so that there won’t be anyone who goes unnotified in the future.”

Students who did not receive an emergency notification had to find out about the threat and evacuation order through alternate means, such as social media.

Some professors were unaware of the evacuation order until their students informed them to leave the building. Uma Bhati, a senior studying economics, was in her financial markets class in GFS when the news broke — but her professor didn’t know what was happening.

“We had to show [the professor] the alert,” she said. “There was a lot of confusion and then everyone just got up and walked outside.”

John Davis, an Annenberg professor who was teaching a journalism class at the time of the alert, was initially made aware of the situation by a student, although he received an email that he saw shortly after. “We just talked for maybe 10 seconds about what to do and we decided that we were going to evacuate the building,” he said.

Thursday’s events have prompted some to question the effectiveness of the TrojansAlert system, especially given the lack of direction in the evacuation process outlined in the alert.

“It was unnerving that the police would not answer my questions and did not tell me or the students in my vicinity to evacuate when the DPS email was just a few minutes away,” Morr said. “It was fully three minutes after I received the email before anyone in Wallis Annenberg Hall made the announcement to leave the building.”

“We kinda stood outside for 10 minutes and then the professor left, so I left,” Bhati said.

Davis was less skeptical of the timing of the alerts. “I felt like it was enough information because in a situation like that, you don’t really know you don’t really have a lot of details,” he said. Davis thought the only helpful information missing from the alert was a designated meeting place.

Although communication about the threat and evacuations wasn’t consistent, Carlisle emphasized the importance of being in the Student Information System (SIS) and ensuring that your contact information is accurate.

“DPS exists to keep our students safe. We just ask that you make sure that you are enrolled in the TrojansAlert system and that we have your current cell phone on file in the Student Information System (SIS),” Carlisle said. “That’s critically important.”

Students, staff and faculty can access information about the SIS through the Information Technology Website, where they can input and update their personal information.

Many universities across the country also received reports of bomb threats at around the same time as USC, which prompted a response from the FBI.

“We are aware of the recent threats and are coordinating with our partners as appropriate. The FBI takes all threats seriously and we encourage the public to remain vigilant and report suspicious activity to their local police department or FBI field office,” the FBI said through their national press office.

Despite the quick response from DPS and the LAPD, many people who were on campus the day of the threat are troubled by the inconsistency in the alert system. And for Morr, he’s concerned with why his initial question wasn’t answered by the officers who came into his room.

“I cannot wrap my head around the decision to delay the evacuation,” Morr said. “To withhold information pertaining to a bomb threat, credible or no, how is that the most cautious choice?”